French mathematician Émile Borel once noted that if you sit a monkey at a typewriter for a certain amount of time, eventually, the monkey will have produced the complete works of Shakespeare. The premise is that in an infinite amount of time, a string of random entries will lead to some sort of progress. In a similar vein, let nearly 100,000 internet users simultaneously and independently submit commands into one game of Pokémon Red and you have Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Roughly two weeks ago, online gaming community Twitch launched a social experiment, allowing any registered users of the site to give commands to the in-game character in 1996’s Pokémon Red, as a way to see if chaos can ultimately create beauty. If you ask me, they’ve achieved their goal – nothing is more beautiful than seeing a mix of internet trolls and Pokémon die-hards work together to catch a Zapdos. Of course, the game has proved to be frustrating as well, leading to some instances where a character spends literally two straight days in one place walking into walls or calling up the Start menu because of this inherent lack of cohesiveness between users (and the presence of some who just want to upset everyone).
The first two weeks of the game have been nothing less than eventful. From narrowly escaping the moving tiles of the Team Rocket Hideout, to finally moving past “The Ledge” on Route 9, to the constant consultation of the Helix Fossil, this game has provided entertainment beyond anything else I’ve seen online recently. As a big fan of the Pokémon series myself, it both pains me and leaves me laughing hysterically when I see the mixed string of commands lead to something like struggling to name captured Pokémon (for example, "Jay Leno" the Rattatta) or releasing a cherished starter Pokémon (or twelve at once, on what has been dubbed by fans as “Bloody Sunday”).
In an act of mercy, and, perhaps, real-life social and political implication, another interesting dynamic was introduced to the game. The programmer created “Democracy” and “Anarchy” controls that allow users to either vote on the next command for the in-game character or leave the game as is with all commands registering. As the website explains, "To get from anarchy mode to democracy mode 80% of the votes must be for democracy mode" and "To get from democracy mode to anarchy mode 50% of the votes must be for anarchy mode." This new feature has given the project an interesting balance between “watching a car crash in slow motion” and a controlled, but seemingly seizured character making his or her way slowly through the Kanto region. Users can choose to either work together using "Democracy" mode, which uses the most popular command every twenty seconds and is arguably the easiest way to beat the game, or users can continue the game the way it was originally intended by seeing if all these random, uncoordinated commands could eventually get the players to the Elite Four.
What’s really exciting about the game though is how it has revived interest in the original Pokémon games. To be fair, the Pokémon series never really lost relevancy, but Twitch puts a unique enough spin on the original game to make it an exciting and engaging online event. This experiment takes a two-decade old game (as if you didn’t feel old enough already) and combines it with the expansiveness and serendipity of the World Wide Web in a way that’s both exciting to watch and fun to actively participate in. Twitch plays Pokémon has also tapped into a tenured and consistently-growing fandom, spurring new subreddits, fan fiction and fan art based on happenings in this run-through of the game. It might seem like an absurd premise, but no other recent website or game has reflected the current state of the internet as accurately as Twitch Plays Pokémon.
To everyone’s surprise, the user collective has managed to obtain six badges(!) and advance in the game beyond what anyone thought was possible. Will users choose to complete the game via “Democracy”? Or will the internet trolls hold domain over Twitch and vote for “Anarchy”? With “Bird Jesus” and “Lord Helix” on their team, anything is possible.